| June 2012
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By Olivia Boler
The Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Library on Jersey Street is a favorite destination for journalist Sonia Faleiro, as well as for her investigative assistant, Zoey. Photo by Pamela Gerard
In 2010, Noe Valley author Sonia Faleiro, 34, published her first book of nonfiction,Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. In February, the U.S. version was published by Black Cat.
The book is a gut-wrenching work that took five years of writing and research delving into a secretive subculture in what today is called Mumbai, India, although Faleiro prefers the older name, Bombay. It’s no secret that women in India, particularly uneducated girls, are sometimes treated worse than stray dogs. Some are raped or sold into sexual servitude by their own relatives. Some run away in order to change the sad trajectory of their lives, although the choices are often few.
In Beautiful Thing, Faleiro introduces readers to Leela, a young woman who, as a child, was raped and sold into prostitution. By the time Faleiro meets her, Leela has escaped to the “big city” and achieved a modicum of control over her life through work as an exotic dancer. But the dangerous and repressive society she inhabits is threatening to darken her future.
The New York Times UK called the book “an intimate and valuable piece of reportage…that will break your heart several times over,” and the San Francisco Chronicle hailed it as “an excellent, painstaking, and often painful investigation of Mumbai’s seedier nightclubs.”
Beautiful Thing was named 2011 Book of the Year by the London Observer, the Economist, and the Guardian, and won the distinction of being the Sunday Times 2011 Travel Book of the Year.
In May, the Noe Valley Voice had a chat with Faleiro about the book, her other writing, and her travels in the neighborhood.
Your latest book is called Beautiful Thing. What is it about?
Beautiful Thing is a work of narrative nonfiction about the shadowy world of Bombay’s dance bars. A world of beautiful young women in desperate circumstances, and gangsters and politicians and dirty cops. It’s about a ban in 2005 that left 75,000 bar dancers to fend for themselves. And it’s the story of the most fascinating, inspirational, and complex young woman I’ve ever met—a 19-year-old bar dancer named Leela.
What inspired you to write the book?
To me, the ban was an act of violence. And I feel that in India we commit acts of violence against women because of their gender and caste all the time.
I didn’t want us to ever forget what we’d done to these women. And so I wrote about them. The book took me about three years to research, and another two to write. It was a huge project, but it changed my life.
In what way?
It confirmed that I was on the right path as a writer. I’d written about India’s poor for so long without knowing whether my writing was reaching readers, or that it had an audience. And writing like this isn’t supported in India, or elsewhere, in terms of financial support or book contracts. Despite this, I decided, long before it was released, that I wouldn’t change who I wrote about and how. The success of the book [it’s now available in eight languages] has been such a relief. I feel secure about the path I’ve chosen. I feel less pressure to write about mainstream subjects. I know I have an audience, and really, what more does a writer want?
Your first book, The Girl (Viking 2006), was fiction. What was it about?
The Girl is set in Goa [India], and it’s the story of a young woman who commits suicide, leaving her family to unravel the truth behind her mysterious death and even more mysterious life.
Is writing fiction very different from writing nonfiction? Do you have a preference for one over the other?
I only ever write nonfiction now. It’s how I understand the world, in particular India. I was born in India. I grew up there. And yet I can’t wrap my head around it. It really does blow my mind, in ways good and bad, and reportage is how I make sense of the idea of India. I don’t enjoy writing fiction anymore. It serves no purpose for me personally. But I read fiction sometimes, mostly to understand prose.
What are you working on now?
A new book of narrative nonfiction. It’s also about India, but I can’t say what yet, since I’m still at an early stage in my research.
What is narrative nonfiction?
Narrative non-fiction is, simply put, the art of storytelling to narrate factual narratives. It’s how I told Leela’s story.
Do you know how Leela is doing today?
No, we’re not in touch.
Do you have a “day job” in addition to writing?
I write a regular column for the New York Times’ India site, “The Other India.” It focuses on India’s marginalized communities and its subcultures and is drawn from my travels across India. [See http://india.blogs.nytimes .com/author/sonia-faleiro/.]
Talk a little about yourself—married or single, kids or pets?
I’m married, and my husband Ulrik McKnight and I have a darling little Jack Russell called Zoey.
How long have you lived in Noe Valley?
We’ve been living in Noe, on 24th Street, for almost three years. We love where we are, close to all our favorite things: the dog park*—we go to Noe Courts on 24th and Douglass, and also to Kite Hill and Billy Goat Hill—the library, the bookstore, great coffee shops.
*Readers should note that the park at Noe Courts is not an official dog park and dogs must be on leash. –Editor
What part of India are you from originally?
I was born in Goa, lived in Delhi and Bombay, studied in Edinburgh, and moved to the Bay Area three years ago. My husband’s a Bay Area local—he’s from Albany. We met in India, lived there for several years, and decided three years ago that we were ready for new adventures. That’s when we moved.
What drew you to making your home in Noe Valley?
I’d been to San Francisco only once before, on book tour. So I didn’t know its different neighborhoods. My husband Ulrik vaguely remembered Noe because he’d come down to Bliss Bar when he was a student at Stanford. A friend recommended Noe, and when we saw it we fell in love. We love the families and kids, the dogs, the aromas from the Noe Valley Bakery, the friendliness.
What are your favorite places? Do they ever inspire your writing?
I love Noe. It’s a perfect fit for us. My favorite place is the dog park. I go there every morning with Zoey, and while she runs around I get the chance to catch up with friends. I’m also a fan of the Sally Brunn Library. It’s quiet and cozy, and the diversity of books is fantastic. I take meetings in Martha’s or Bernie’s and La Boulange Bakery, shop for Zoey at the pet shop on 24th and Castro, and when I need to get out of the house for a bit I go to Philz.
Do you have any upcoming events locally?
I’ve been on book tour for two years! The book came out in India in 2010, then it was out in Australia, then in Europe, and it was finally published in the U.S. in March. So the events have been non-stop, and over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to speak at the World Bank, and various universities, including MIT, Tufts, and locally, at the University of California, Berkeley. I’d love the opportunity to do something in Noe, and perhaps I’ll get the chance soon.
Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars is available in Noe Valley at Phoenix Books. To learn more about Faleiro’s work, visit her website, www.soniafaleiro.com.
From Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro
He wondered how old Leela was. She had been thirteen when they had met, thirteen when he pursued her, fourteen when she agreed to be with him. She had been fourteen when he started looking around, fifteen when he found another ‘wife’ in another dance bar, sixteen when Leela found out and confronted him. She had been sixteen when he swore to be faithful, sixteen when he broke his promise, sixteen when he started looking around again. He hadn’t kept track since.
But she had been thirteen when she had first laughed at his jokes, thirteen when he had wanted her, thirteen when he swore he would never stop making her laugh.
At thirteen her teeth had been like a string of Hyderabadi pearls fit for the neck of a queen.
Shetty smiled in recollection.
Leela thought it was because he had forgiven her. ‘Get into your nightie!’ she said to herself. ‘Distract him duffer, quick! Make him forget this MC bijniss!’
Leela returned Shetty’s smile; Shetty’s face closed.
Her teeth aren’t what they used to be, he thought. Of course, the dance bar will do that to you. Some girls! Their teeth so rotten, it was a wonder they tasted food. And their brains were no less rotten, mind you. Angootha chhaaps! Oh, but Leela. Leelaji could not only write, she could read. Once he had stumbled upon her reading a novel in the make-up room. There were very few things that impressed Shetty. That was one of them. Leela was so smart, just being around her made him feel good about himself. Like an upper-class man, in a top-class joint.
It was a matter of luck Shetty knew that Leela had been forced into this line, a line that gnawed into you like you were the marrow in a plate of nalli-nehari, and once you had been chewed through and through, spat you underfoot. And that someone like his Mrs had been born into a good family and so enjoyed every privilege of respectable lineage—a good husband, a good flat, a good vehicle, good children.
Because the truth was, even in Bombay, that great equalizer, you couldn’t always fight birth. And you certainly couldn’t do it without money and without connections.
In Bombay, a nobody could die with nothing.
And in that moment, perhaps in the regret of that moment, Shetty regained his feelings of affection and regard for the young woman before him. And he wished, truly, that Leela—oh, bright as a blade, as quick-witted as a street chokra, and as marvelously clever as a Gemini circus magician—had had better luck.
Excerpted with author’s permission from Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. First published in India in 2010 by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books India. Published in the United States by Black Cat (New York: 2012).